Monday, June 6, 2011

On Unintelligent Voting

I try to vote in every election I can—school board, village president, state legislature, governor, and, of course, federal legislature and President. I am not, however, always a well informed voter. Take, for example, my vote during my village's local school board election this past April. While I received a flyer in the mail from each candidate that listed his or her platform, all of the platforms included the same platitudes. Instead of investigating each candidate's positions further by, for example, attending a candidate forum, I voted for the candidate who attended the same undergraduate college that I did. My vote was not well informed, but at least I had voted—unlike 90% of my fellow village citizens. I had done my civic duty, right?

Perhaps not. In The Ethics of Voting, Brown University professor Jason Brennan argues that while voting may be a fundamental American right, voting and voting well are two different acts. Voting, like singing, can be done well or badly—and one has no obligation to do it at all. Josh Rothman, who reviewed Brennan's book in a recent post on the Boston Globe's Brainiac Blog, summarizes his main argument:
To vote well, Brennan argues, you actually need to be thinking at a very high level. It's not enough to know which policies different candidates support. You also need to have "epistemically justified" opinions about those policies—which, in many cases, means drawing on "social-scientific background knowledge." That knowledge is hard to acquire, which is why reasonable people can disagree about their votes while also voting well; the point is that they've done their due diligence and taken voting seriously.
Rothman reports that Brennan is not suggesting we abandon civil engagement. Rather, he is urging citizens to consider voting as an optional responsibility—one which the individual need not choose to burden himself with if he is not prepared to educate himself. Because we are not obligated to vote, Brennan argues, if we choose to vote we have an ethical responsibility to our fellow citizens to do so well. I will need to heed Brennan's advice the next time the polls open in my town.

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